The senses of history

History is textural (as opposed to textual), something I was reminded of while reading a recent blog post from the always articulate and evocative Matt Houlbrook. It reminded me of another post, this one by Will Pooley, which similarly thinks about history in terms of the tactile. The interactions of history become as much about touch as intellectual comprehension.

This post, then, forms my own contribution to this mini-genre of historical thought, inspired by the coincidence that, on the same train journey where I read Matt’s blog, I also read the recent seminar paper that Edmund King gave at the Senate House on ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’. I wasn’t able to attend the seminar, but the wonders of modern technology (well, a combination of Twitter and email) meant that I was able to read the text the following day.

Among a variety of fascinating sources quoted, one stood out in relation to this question of the textures of history, from a letter from 2nd Lt. Sanders Lewis to his fiancee:

‘So my letters smell like a tobacco store. I am glad … I have been able to give you at last some real taste of the sort of place we live in. Here out of the line the officers’ mess is one wood huts heated by two stoves. There is a long table … and on it candles flicker a shadowy light over the hut at night. A few men are writing letters at one end, two parties are playing bridge at the other … and everywhere med are smoking so that with the shadows flicked on the walls by the candle flames, and the slow columns of pipe and cigarette smoke hanging over our heads, everyone looks dim at ten yards interval.’ [1]

In this quotation, Lewis evokes three of the five senses – smell, sight and touch – to try to describe his experiences to Margaret. As King notes, ‘Describing the material contexts of writing becomes a way of bridging the sensory and temporal divides between writer and recipient.

Lewis was by no means alone in doing this, nor were the senses of hearing and taste to be forgotten. Descriptions of sound were a deeply significant element of men’s letters home in their attempts to describe their experiences to their families. [2] Taste was similarly central to the emotional power of the food parcel from home, as discussed by Rachel Duffett. [3] The senses, all five of them, then, were vitally important to the ways in which the First World War was communicated as an experience at the time.

But what struck me is that, if such evocation of sensory experience acts as a bridge between writer and recipient, it also has the power to act as a bridge between the writer and other readers, in this case the historian who has accessed the letter through an archive. As with the original reader, the descriptions in men’s letters have the potential to show us what we have not experienced ourselves, to share with us a world we do not know.

At the same time, while verbal descriptions remain potentially powerful, other sensory aspects of these manuscripts and objects have been lost. 100 years on, I doubt the smell of tobacco still clings to Lewis’s manuscript. Metaphorical evocations also start to fail. Does the comparison of a bombardment to coal being tipped down a cellar have any meaning for the historian who has never heard either? What does plum and apple jam or Machonocie stew taste like?

Attempts have been made to recreate historic materials which evoke the senses. Rowntree’s experiments with an original 1914 recipe for chocolate had mixed results, while museuological experiments with evoking the sensory nature of the trenches have attracted as much criticism as praise. [4] More successfully, my colleague Iona McCleery’s You Are What You Ate project has been recreating historic recipes as part of a long-term educational project introducing the history of food to audiences throughout West Yorkshire. Films such as The Battle of the Somme allow us to see, if not the battle itself, then the view offered to British civilians of that battle in 1916. Early recordings bring the voices and music of the war years back to life. But as historians we can only access these senses critically and from a distance. Ingredients change with farming practices, the medium deteriorates, introducing visual and aural flaws, the scent of tobacco clinging to a piece of paper fades over time, the paper itself crumbles at the reader’s touch.

History is a sensory discipline and one that is becoming more so as material histories and histories of the body increase their reach and impact. The weight of a wood and canvass stretcher loaded with three sodden blankets and the dead weight of a wounded man is vitally important to my understanding of my historical subjects, even if I have never tried to lift one myself. But, as with all disciplinary developments, this one throws up its own complications and contradictions, giving the practice as much texture and richness as the as the sources themselves. I don’t think historians would have it any other way.

[1]Saunders Lewis to Margaret Gilcriest, 6th February, 1917, quoted in Edmund King, ‘British Manuscript Cultures of the First World War’, paper given to the Paper, Pen and Ink 2: Manuscript Cultures in the Age of Print Research Seminar, London, 18th May, 2015.

[2] Jessica Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 30-31.

[3] Rachel Duffett, The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012, 199-205.

[4] Richard Espley, ‘”How much of an ‘experience’ do way the public to receive?”: Trench reconstructions and popular images of the Great War’ in Jessica Meyer (ed), British Popular Culture and the First World War, Leiden: Brill, 2008, 325-349.

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Some more about footnotes

Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War finished its four-part broadcast on BBC 1 last week.  Billed as the BBC’s flagship centenary programme, and the starting point for its commemorative activities, which now appear to reaching fever pitch in advance of the launch of the regional and online World War One at Home project, despite it only being February, the programme was a bit of a curate’s egg, although one that, on the whole, I enjoyed.

Four hours to cover the entire course of the First World War, principally from the perspective of the British ‘home front’, although with bits and pieces about the Western Front tucked in as well, is not a lot, and many topics were, inevitably, simplified or simply omitted.  To some extent, this doesn’t matter.  The BBC has, as it keeps informing us, over 2,500 hours of programming devoted to the war planned for the centenary years and many of the topics, including the global reach of the war, the relationships between Britain and her allies and even straightforward military history will, doubtless, be dealt with elsewhere and in more detail.

Other aspects were more troubling.  Choosing to focus, often in some detail, on particular topics ended up giving an oddly skewed impression. Shell shock and facial disfigurement, currently vying for the status of symbolic wound of the war, were by no means the only life-altering medical conditions that men survived with, yet there was no mention of disease, amputation or the long-term affects of gas.  Fronts beyond the Western Front had little impact on this narrative of war, despite their impact on the consciousness of the British population at the time. And the limiting of the discussion of the importance of letters to a brief section on the postal system and the perspective of a single officer on the process of censoring letters was, for me as someone who has worked extensively on the letters men wrote home, extremely reductive.

Which brings me to the real problem I had with the programme, which has at its hearts a fairly fundamental contradiction.  Paxman has gained many plaudits for his authoritative and, on the whole, sensitive presentation of a range of material which was new to many viewers and which reflected many of the more cutting-edge and original arguments made in recent years by academic historians.  He also interviewed a number of people, most memorably the centenarian Violet Muers, whose eye-witness account of the German bombardment of Hartlepool made for powerful television.  But not one of these interviewees was a professional historian, a deliberate decision on the part of the producers who wanted to use the programme to emphasize familial connections between the war and their audience.

This in itself is not a problem.  As programmes such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have shown, family connections to the past make for good television and are a powerful way of connecting contemporary audiences to history.  It is the attempt to combine cutting-edge historical arguments with the perspective of the interested descendent that creates issues.  Because the overall effect was to invest all the authority for the arguments made entirely in Paxman himself.  And while he is an authoritative figure, and I can well believe read widely around the subject and come to his own conclusions about what points to make, he is not, in fact, the historian who has undertaken the research that backs so many of the claims he made over the course of the programme.

Some of that research has been done by programme’s historical adviser, Adrian Gregory, who published The Last Great War (Cambridge University Press, 2008), an excellent piece of social history that is both scholarly and accessible and which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic. Presumably the interested audience member would be able to pick Adrian’s name from the credits and track down his publications if they wanted to read more about the subject.  But Adrian’s is not the only original research to influence Paxman’s arguments.  David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (Yale University Press, 1990), Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory (Hambledon and London, 2005), Michael Roper’s The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester University Press, 2009) and, most recently of all, Laura Ugolini’s Civvies: Middle-Class Men on the English Home Front (Manchester University Press, 2013) all contributed to at least some part of the argument being made.  And these are simply the works that spring most immediately to mind, reflecting as they do my own particular research interests. With greater concentration (and rather more time at my disposal), I suspect I could compile a further reading list of recent scholarly research so extensive as to be potentially daunting to an undergraduate, let alone a curious but not obsessive Monday night television viewer.

The problem this highlights is the fact that, as there are no footnotes on television, how do professional historians (both academic and otherwise) working on the history of the First World War ensure that their work is properly acknowledged?  Many have spent a great deal of time and effort, not to mention funds, sourcing and interpreting the primary source material, as well as formulating the arguments that Paxman so authoritatively deploys.  For academic historians, this work forms the basis of their professional reputations and the intellectual capital that they deploy to make a living.  As such, that work needs to be recognised not simply by specialists but, if those arguments are going to be deployed more widely, then by all those who are making use of them.  This is not merely good manners; it is the very foundation of intellectual exchange and honesty.  But how to do this in a way that is both engaging to a broad non-specialist audience and is fair to researchers remains something that needs urgently to be discussed.  I have been mooting the idea of topic-specific further reading lists to be publicised alongside future programmes, but who compiles these and how their time is paid for remains an open question.  Equally problematic, from the perspective of engagement, is the ethics of recommending books that may have cover prices beyond not merely the interested individual but also the cash-strapped local library.  The Cambridge History of the First World War may be one of the most important recent publications on the subject, but at £90 a volume (£240 for all three), it is hardly going to have a wide circulation beyond university and other specialist libraries.

There is also the related problem in the BBC’s apparent fear of historians as specialist commentators, at least in relation to its most prominent offerings on the First World War.  While BBC 2 and BBC 4 television both seem willing to interview historians as specialists, BBC 1 so far prefers to use Paxman, Kate Adie and Dan Snow for almost all commentary related to the First World War.  Regional radio, working in partnership with the AHRC, has made extensive use of specialist historical knowledge in producing the World War One at Home project. It remains to be seen how the programme is received more widely, but as a researcher and contributor it has, to date, been a positive and highly informative experience.  Yet Woman’s Hour has run a number of features on First World War topics (including Edith Cavell and the aftermath of the war) with no input from historians, despite there being not merely experts but indeed female experts in these fields who might have added useful perspective.* And the major on-line offering, the interactive guides to various aspects of the war, are predominantly fronted by either media personalities or those with contemporary professional interests in the subject, with historical expertise usually tucked away at the end.**  This is the most public and accessible display of historical knowledge of the war that the BBC is providing, yet the role of the historian in all of this is too often hidden and unacknowledged.  This is troubling given that most historians are fundamentally communicators, interested in ensuring that other people know about the work they do and the stories that they uncover.  And many are not only presentable but are capable of learning the skills necessary to engage with a popular audience.  Indeed, in the current academic climate, with its emphasis on impact and engagement, many are not merely willing but feel compelled to do so, whether through formal media training or less formal practices including blogging.

None of this, of course, is new or specific to the centenary of the First World War, or even to the popular media.  Recent impassioned blogs by Matt Houlbrook and Lesley Hall point to the pervasiveness of the potential for mistreatment and exploitation of academics, particularly early-career researchers, by both the media and well-known established historians (and their publishers).  For historians of the First World War, however, this centenary moment presents both a challenge and an opportunity, to ensure not only that our research, in all its originality, is made accessible to a wide audience, but that we gain due credit for we have done and are doing, both those of us who choose to work directly with media outlets and those who do not.  There are no easy answers as to how we do this, but the moment to have the discussions is too opportune to be missed.

In the meantime, I will start compiling my further reading list, to be posted on here at a later date.  Please do get in touch if there is a particular volume that you think should have been cited in relation to Paxman’s programme (preferably with a note as to the bit it relates to) and I will make sure it is included.

*The special extended programme on 5th February made excellent use of Professor Joanna Bourke and Professor Maggie Andrews as commentators, but again, Kate Adie and Baroness Shirley Williams were the guests who names featured most prominently in the publicity.

**Honourable exceptions here are Gary Sheffield and Sam Willis.